The beginnings of the Confederate Navy Yard in Charlotte started in 1860 when a foundry was established at the intersection of East Trade Street and the North Carolina Railroad. John Wilkes, a prominent Charlotte citizen, owned a majority of the foundry and planned on eventually purchasing full ownership. However, after the Civil War broke out, a battle in Virginia drastically altered his plans.
In April 1862, a major battle between two ironclad ships, the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor, took place at Hampton Roads Harbor in Virginia. Although there was no clear winner, the Confederate government realized its naval works in Norfolk were unsafe. Confederate officers searched inland for a suitable location for the naval-related manufacturing work to continue and be sheltered from the Union Army attacks.
Two Confederate officers made their way to Charlotte in late April and met with John Wilkes, who had served alongside both men in the US Navy prior to the Civil War. Wilkes showed them the potential Navy Yard property and its location was ideal. Already on site was a working foundry, and a major railroad ran through the property. After the officers report on the property, the Confederacy quickly purchased the site and in May 1862, equipment from Norfolk was shipped to Charlotte.
Although no actual ships were built at the Charlotte Navy Yard, it served an important role in the war effort by casting gun carriages, munitions, projectiles and other large forgings vital to the Confederate cause. Many of the experienced workers at Norfolk came to the yard but a number of locals were employed there as well, with several hundred men running coke ovens, clanging hot iron into various shapes and casting gunshot into small spheres for use in an upcoming battles.
When the War ended, the Navy Yard was abandoned and seized by Federal troops after a contingent of the 9thNew Jersey Infantry marched into Charlotte on May 7, 1865. It remained dormant until John Wilkes bought the yard from the United States government in December 1866 and operated it until he moved the entire operation to his property on West Trade Street in 1875. John died in July 1908 and two of his sons took over the business. By the 1960s, the entire operation was owned by another organization.
The Carolina Central Railway Company bought the original Navy Yard property from Wilkes and was subsequently owned by the Sea Board Air Line. In April 1910, The Daughters of the American Revolution suggested the original Navy Yard site be marked with a plaque and on June 3, 1910, a tablet marking the Yard’s location was unveiled at the new home of the Mecklenburg Iron Works. Designed by John Wilkes son, J. Frank Wilkes, the tablet measures about 2 square feet with black and read lettering reading, “Confederate State Navy Yard, 1862-1865.” Jane Wilkes, wife of the late John Wilkes, assisted in the opening ceremonies.
The EpiCenter complex now covers the entire site where the Yard and other nearby business existed. The original tablet from 1910 was replaced by a newer marker in 1955, but was recently removed during various construction projects on East Trade Street. When reinstalled, the plaque will be a small but significant reminder of the role Charlotte played for the Confederate Navy in the War Between the States.